So a little over a week of spring training games is now in the books. That is, of course, nowhere near enough time to declare we know what’s going on, even in the context of a bunch of barely-not-meaningless spring games which usually seem to have almost no relationship to the regular season record of the team being considered. We have just about four more weeks to go until Opening Day, and maybe two more weeks before the methadone of March baseball gives way to the craving for the real stuff again.
Ten days of baseball is never enough to draw strong conclusions, and especially when it’s weird, early March baseball, with rotating casts of characters and fifth-inning defensive switches and pitchers eternally working on Some Things.
It is, however, long enough to start talking about what our conclusions might potentially be, even while acknowledging that our conclusions might very well be reflections of what we already thought ahead of time. Not direct reflections, mind you, but confirmation bias is a powerful thing, and tough to escape entirely, even when we truly try. So let’s talk a bit about some things that have happened in these first ten days.
First things first: the pitching has been, for the most part, extremely encouraging in general. Now, to be fair, there is always the debate about who is ahead early in the spring, with most believing the pitchers have a bit of an advantage to start, and the hitters have to try and catch up. So we do have some grains of salt that must be taken into account. I have watched quite a bit of baseball so far this spring, though, and I have to say I don’t believe it is simply pitchers leading and hitters trying to catch up. The Cardinal pitching has been, mostly, downright wicked in most of the games I’ve seen.
I should split that opinion slightly, I suppose. The starters have been a bit more up and down; Jack Flaherty was really good, and then he came out searching for his command his second time out. Adam Wainwright has looked shaky, but that could also just be what Adam Wainwright looks like at 38. Carlos Martinez has been fine, but still looks more like the great Could Have Been than the dominant force he was developing into before mechanical changes and injury issues started eroding his career. The elephant in the room, of course, is Miles Mikolas, who hasn’t looked like anything at all, because the flexor tendon in his right arm decided to misbehave, and we’re not going to see Mr. Mustache for a while as a result.
On the other hand, the newer faces in camp and the relievers have mostly looked fantastic. Dakota Hudson hasn’t been the best starter, necessarily, but he’s been the one whose performance has maybe been the most encouraging to me. Yes, it’s only been five innings, but Hudson has yet to walk a batter. He came into camp with a slightly simplified delivery and the goal of improving his control, and so far he’s done nothing but pump strikes. Of course, he could go out in his next start tomorrow, walk half a dozen, and we’re right back where we started, but a Dakota Hudson who does not walk batters is an extremely intriguing prospect. He might actually be slightly more hittable that way, but if he’s not putting hitters on base himself the net results would almost have to be positive.
Austin Gomber looked absolutely fantastic yesterday. Junior Fernandez has looked dominant every time I’ve seen him so far. John Gant has...well, okay, it can’t be all sunshine all the time, alright? Kodi Whitley has appeared three times, thrown three innings, and struck out six. No, he’s not on the roster. No, it might not matter.
At the beginning of February, I published this year’s version of my annual Spring Surprises post, and my pick at the time was the Cards’ newest import, Kwang-hyun Kim. So far, Kim has done nothing to make me regret that choice, as he has looked downright filthy in his first two outings. He’s set to go again today, and I’ll be eagerly anticipating him going against one of the best offenses in baseball last year in the form of the Twins. I probably won’t be able to watch live, unfortunately, but I’ll do whatever I can to get a look at him anyway. Still, through two outings and three innings he’s faced ten batters, struck out five, walked one, given up one hit, and has not allowed a man to cross the plate.
Speaking of spring surprises, I’m not going to go through the comments on that again and try to name clubhouse leaders or anything, but the players I think are ahead right now are Kim, Whitley, Junior Fernandez, Hudson, and Genesis Cabrera. A case could be made for Gomber, but I’d like to see him do what he did yesterday another time or two before I get too excited.
On the hitting side, things have been more of a mixed bag. Now, that could very well play into what I said earlier about hitters being behind pitchers so far, and the hitting just hasn’t looked as great by comparison. But there have also been some really concerning performances so far. Dexter Fowler looks about medium rare, maybe even medium. Matt Carpenter’s balky back has kept us from seeing much of his newly retooled swing. Justin Williams has come to the plate nineteen times, has only struck out three times, and somehow still only has one hit, that being a home run. Harrison Bader’s line is good overall, but it’s still worrisome he’s struck out in almost a third of his plate appearances.
To be fair, we could turn that last one around: Harrison Bader has struck out in almost a third of his plate appearances, but he’s also done enough good things that his overall line is excellent. See? This sportswriting thing isn’t hard, so long as you learn how to write suitably vague, open-to-interpretation pap. Seriously, though, Bader’s spring has been tough to evaluate thanks to that combination of a continuing issue and the fact he’s hit the crap out of the ball when he has made contact. He has five hits, and three of those have gone for extra bases. His K:BB ratio is 5:1. Make of Harrison Bader’s spring whatever you like; there’s plenty to push a person in either direction.
At this point, talking about Harrison Bader leads us inevitably, inexorably, toward another conversation, one that is probably going to suck up the majority of the air in the room from now until, well, at least Opening Day, and quite possibly well beyond that. I am talking, of course, about the corner outfield spot or spots, and more specifically I am talking about Dylan Carlson.
Actually, first I’d like to acknowledge that Paul DeJong has, in fact, been the Cardinals’ best hitter so far this spring. Of course, we’ve seen crazy hot streaks from Pauly D before, including to begin the season in 2019, so the question is going to be whether he can sustain his success this time, or slide back toward league-averageness with the bat in his hands once again. So if you had DeJong in the surprises pool, congratulations! Your boy is killing it. Given he already has the job and all, though, talking about him is probably not the most interesting topic right now.
After Paul DeJong, the two most impressive hitters in Cardinal camp right now are Tyler O’Neill and Dylan Carlson. And that creates a problem. Or at least a situation.
I actually laid out the issue with Dylan Carlson having a huge spring back in that spring surprises post. The short version is this: the Cardinals have a lot of outfielders to sort through, even trading away Randy Arozarena. One of the big priorities in 2020, I believe, has to be figuring out what the future of the outfield is going to look like. The potential for a rotation crunch forcing what looks like a very deserving pitcher into a bullpen spot or Triple A assignment has been temporarily mitigated somewhat by the injury to Mikolas, but the outfield minefield of public relations and baseball decisions remains in full effect. In fact, it’s becoming more and more real by the day.
The Cardinals, and all the rest of us, know that Dylan Carlson is going to have a job in the outfield for at least a period of time, beginning sometime in the relatively near future. Now, that’s not to say Carlson is guaranteed to succeed and become a long-term Redbird; it just means that Carlson is the sort of prospect and player you make room for, and give enough runway to see if he’s going to live up to the hype or not. This isn’t Randal Grichuk or Stephen Piscotty coming up with some internal excitement and bigger-picture questions, trying to integrate into the outfield mix. This is one of the best prospects in baseball, and you have to give that guy the chance to become what you hope he can be.
The real issue is when. By which I mean, when does Carlson’s time begin? You wouldn’t think it would be a particularly fraught question; after all, the Cardinals are not typically one of those clubs that engages in service time shenanigans, so just bring him up when he’s ready, right?
The problem there is that once you start the clock on Dylan Carlson in the big leagues, you’re going to give him all the time, and all the chances, to prove that he either is or is not the future of the franchise. You’re not going to platoon him in left field with another hitter. No time shares, no fourth outfielder duties. Which, of course, means that no one else is getting a whole lot of playing time in Carlson’s spot.
And here we come to the heart of the matter. Tyler O’Neill has come to the plate fourteen times this spring, and he has struck out just three times. He’s hit two home runs. Most intriguingly of all, he has drawn four walks. Obviously, the sample sizes are tiny, and there’s a whole lot of time left for things to change with Tyler O’Neill. But his OPS right now is 1.400, and let’s face it: the Cardinals chose to part with Randy Arozarena over the offseason, and the presence of Tyler O’Neill had a lot to do with that decision. O’Neill has, by far, the highest offensive upside of any outfielder on the Cardinals’ 40 man roster right now (notice I said on the 40 man), and if he continues to hit throughout spring the way he has so far (by which I mean walking a lot and keeping his strikeouts under control, not necessarily hitting dingers at a rate of ~80 per 600 PAs), then you cannot not have him in the starting lineup come Opening Day.
So we have Harrison Bader having a mixed spring, but the fact is Bader is one of the best defensive players in baseball, and anything close to a league-average batting line makes him hugely valuable. Tyler O’Neill is showing the best batting eye we’ve yet seen from him, and still possesses the mammoth power that could carry him to incredible heights with the bat. And Dylan Carlson, at age 21, looks like the best overall hitter on the club, even with Paul DeJong putting up some crazy numbers. Carlson has the same 4:3 walk to strikeout ratio as O’Neill, has two doubles and a triple among seven hits in eighteen plate appearances, and is OPSing 1.397. That would seem to be an ideal situation for a team to be in, right?
Well, yes. If it weren’t for the fact the Cardinals still have Dexter Fowler on the roster, apparently slated for a starting job against all logic. And for the record, I don’t believe this is a Mike Shildt issue. This is a larger organisation issue. The Cardinals clearly value the relationship aspect of player acquisition and management, as seen through their willingness to hand out multiple extensions to franchise players, even when performance would suggest they shouldn’t. Dexter Fowler is not slated for a starting right field job because Mike Shildt likes him; he’s slated for that job (apparently, I should say), because the organisation believes there is some good reason for him to have it. You also have Lane Thomas in camp, and looking pretty good. You have Justin Williams competing for a bench spot, even if the BABIP gods have been laughing at him pretty hard so far. Austin Dean is a pretty decent option for the Jose Martinez spot, an extra outfielder and bench bat, with the added benefit of that 26th roster slot. Tommy Edman can play five or six spots, but if things go well in the infield he really doesn’t have a path to consistent playing time. (Now, you could argue you don’t think Edman deserves/requires playing time, but that’s a separate issue.)
The ideal solution would simply be to send Carlson down, use the first half of the season to try and sort through the various outfield options already on the 40 man roster while he bashes his way through the Pacific Coast League, and then sometime around June or July you bring up Dylan Carlson to take over an outfield spot alongside the other two players who are going to be part of your long-term plan, preferably Harrison Bader and Tyler O’Neill. But how much is public opinion going to turn against the organisation if they were to actually do that? We saw some creeping unrest even late last season in the midst of a playoff run, and the fact the Cardinals made it to the NLCS does not seem to have convinced anyone it was a successful season. I guess playing four really bad games in a row can do that, but the fact is this is a fanbase that has become almost aggressively disaffected over the past handful of years, and the organisation has to be cognizant of that, I think. Sending down Dylan Carlson to play Dexter Fowler every day would be....not the best look. On the other hand, pushing Carlson into center field to take away playing time from Harrison Bader or over to take Tyler O’Neill’s at-bats against righties or any other situation is also going to look very bad. I don’t think the Cards would get lambasted for service time manipulation; I just think a decent chunk of the fanbase would see it as further proof the organisation really isn’t concerned about winning.
It has been an offseason of discontent, between the Cards’ own failure to make any really meaningful moves and a slew of projection systems pegging them as a .500 team and the Cincinnati Reds doing a whole bunch of stuff to move the needle juuust enough they might make some noise this season. And now here we are, spring training, and the club’s biggest question mark, the outfield, looks like it might actually work itself out in exactly the way the organisation hoped it would, with emerging young players ready to produce, maybe even at a star level.
Seems like it would be simple, doesn’t it? Maybe it will be. It’s barely even March. But I feel like there is a potential crisis of confidence in the organisation on the horizon if they don’t figure out some way forward that doesn’t involve signalling to the fan base that winning doesn’t matter in the face of big contracts that keep getting on the field somehow.